President Joe Biden recently stopped in Portland to remind Oregonians they live in a “progressive state.”
“You’re a state that has always been ahead of the curve,” Biden said, in an effort to give Democratic Tina Kotek some support in her tight race for governor. “Stay ahead of the curve, and elect Tina.”
The subtext to Biden’s visit: Despite Oregon’s Democratic-friendly demographics, Kotek could be in trouble.
The last time Oregon had a Republican in the governor’s mansion, Clyde Drexler was playing for the Trail Blazers. (Vic Atiyeh left office in 1987.) But now, with polls consistently showing Kotek is in a tight race with the Republican candidate for governor, Christine Drazan, the Democrats are feeling vulnerable. And the GOP in Oregon is basking in a rare moment of optimism.
There is a combination of factors making this year’s contest one for the history books. Betsy Johnson, a former state senator, is running as an unaffiliated candidate and polling is showing she is siphoning votes from the Democratic candidate Kotek.
All three candidates are well funded, with both Drazan and Johnson having received millions of dollars in financial support from Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Kotek also has deep-pocketed supporters, however, and has brought in a record amount from the state’s largest public union. This is already the most expensive governor’s race on record, topping $55 million.
“I think it’s remarkable we have three really powerhouse women who have been running and making this a competitive show,” said Rebecca Tweed, a Republican political strategist. “It’s a reflection of Oregon voters being tired of where the status quo has led the state.”
For years, the GOP in Oregon has struggled to coalesce behind candidates who are moderate enough to appeal to a statewide audience — yet who can also manage to not alienate the more right-wing base. During the last general election in November of 2020, they lost their grip on the one statewide office they managed to hold, secretary of state.
But now, with a surging homeless crisis, an increase in the number of murders and the state’s biggest city being regularly derided on a national stage — not for being weird, but for being a mess — Democrats are on the defensive. Even the three Democratic candidates running for Oregon’s open seats in the U.S. House, in districts that favor Democrats, are in more competitive races than expected.
Knight has also poured money into electing Republicans to the Oregon state Legislature. He’s spent $2 million on trying to help Republicans gain an advantage in both legislative chambers.
A somewhat similar scenario is playing out in Washington state, where Republicans have also historically struggled statewide. There hasn’t been a Republican elected governor in Washington since the 1980s and they also hold no statewide offices. They haven’t won a seat in the U.S. Senate since the 1990s, but U.S. Sen. Patty Murray faces a tougher-than-normal challenge this year against Republican Tiffany Smiley, who is well funded. Murray, however, is still favored to keep the seat.
But there are some clouds threatening to cover this ray of GOP sunshine in Oregon: Despite Democratic dominance in state politics, gubernatorial races have historically had some of the tighter margins.
“Since 2002, the Democrats have only won by an average of 5 percentage points in (Oregon) gubernatorial elections and haven’t gotten above 51%,” said John Horvick, with DHM Research.
Chris Dudley, a Republican who had played in the NBA, lost by less than 2 percentage points to John Kitzhaber in 2010. In 2018, when Gov. Kate Brown ran against Republican candidate Knute Buehler, the New York Times declared, “In a year of women running for Governor, one incumbent finds a tough fight.”
But Brown won by more than 6 percentage points against Buehler, a far more moderate candidate than Drazan.
Tweed, the political strategist, worked on Buehler’s campaign.
“Knute was competitive up until election day … and progressive voters came out for their candidate,” Tweed said, noting she was trying to kick the feeling of deja vu as she watched the narrative of how tight this year’s race could be.
This is what Democrats are banking on: As Oregonians sit down with their ballots, Democrats and unaffiliated moderates who have been considering Johnson will decide a vote for her translates into help for Drazan.
Still, the Democrats aren’t taking any chances. They are hitting the issue of abortion access hard in debates, speeches and advertisements and highlighting Drazan’s anti-abortion views. Polls have repeatedly shown, however, that voters are most concerned about homelessness and inflation.
Oregon has codified the right to access an abortion in state law and Drazan, who is anti-abortion, said she wouldn’t change the law. Democrats are hoping to drive home that an anti-abortion governor could still do a lot to restrict access, but it’s unclear whether the message is resonating.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama recently recorded an ad for Kotek, calling her the real deal and noting that she helped pass the “strongest abortion access law in the country.”
“Tina knows things are broken,” he said. “But she’s a fixer, always has been always will be.”
And Kotek has finally taken aim at the incumbent in the governor’s mansion. Brown is considered one of the least popular governors in the country based on polls and contributing to the unease Democrats are feeling. Brown’s term has been tumultuous with the global pandemic, a racial justice reckoning, historic wildfires, and a homeless crisis. Both Johnson and Drazan have spent a lot of their campaign dollars trying to tie Kotek to the Brown administration.
Up until now, Kotek has refrained from attacking her former ally.
“Almost three years ago, I called for a homelessness state of emergency,” Kotek said in a recently released advertisement. “Gov. Brown did nothing … On day one, I will do what Kate Brown wouldn’t. I will get people the help they need to move off the streets.”
This story is part of a collaboration among public radio stations in the Northwest News Network covering the 2022 election season.